Man United test gives Spurs an early chance to show they have learned from past defeats
When Tottenham lined up at Old Trafford in mid-March they were very much in the fight for the Champions League spots – just three points behind fourth-placed Manchester United.
A victory would have taken them level with Louis van Gaal’s side and given Spurs everything to play for in the final two months.
But United were 3-0 up after just 36 minutes and, while there were mercifully no more goals, by the end of the day the Lilywhites were six points adrift – the same gap that existed between the teams at the end of the season.
If Tottenham are to close that margin and become genuine contenders for the top four again, they will need to have fewer days like that against their main rivals.
It was hardly an isolated incident. Spurs also conceded three goals away against both Chelsea and Liverpool in the league, and four at Manchester City.
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Unsurprisingly, they lost those games and, while consistency against the lower sides is also vital, such a pattern in these ‘six-pointers’ will clearly undermine any top-four challenge.
Spurs’ leaky defence was a constant issue last season – Mauricio Pochettino’s side conceded the most goals of any of the top 13 sides in the table – and steps have been taken to improve that area.
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All three of the signings so far are defenders, and Toby Alderweireld should make a big difference as he renews his partnership with Jan Vertonghen after their days together at Ajax. It will hopefully give the Lilywhites a consistent centre-back pairing, which they have lacked.
But attitudes need to change as well. Spurs suffered heavy defeats against the top sides under Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood in 2013-14 as well.
In April 2014 – before Pochettino even arrived – former captain Ledley King suggested the commitment to “the Tottenham way” was part of the problem.
“I think the difficulty is that when you go to the top teams you can get punished very easily, especially when you believe in your own qualities and you feel you can have a go at them,” he said at the time.
“There’s a thin line between that and leaving yourself open, and I think that’s what’s happened. We’ve been punished trying to play our attacking style of football, which means that we’ll have a go at teams. I don’t think we have the type of player who’s happy to sit there and try to grind out a 0-0 draw.”
Sixteen months on, Pochettino has done little to change that dynamic and the sale of Benjamin Stambouli – a year after his arrival – indicated that he does not like to play with a holding midfielder who specialises in simply shielding the back four, and that he has no intention of playing with one.
That is all very well, and Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason are more dynamic in possession, but they both started the aforementioned defeats at Chelsea, Liverpool and United last term.
Spurs have simply looked too open in such games, too ambitious against sides who were capable of punishing them, and did.
Interestingly, they adopted a more reserved approach away at Arsenal last September, and the result was a 1-1 draw – but despite that it was hardly seeen again.
There is an ideological ideal which argues that sport is all about confidence and ambition – standing toe to toe with bigger foes and taking your best swing – and Spurs did just that when they beat Chelsea 5-3 on New Year’s Day.
But that was on home turf and there is something to be said for showing greater respect for your opponent, and caution, when the roles are reversed.
Spurs have remained unapologetically adventurous. After the late 3-2 defeat at Liverpool, Vertonghen said: “I think the intention was to attack and I don’t want to change that. I don’t think anyone at Tottenham wants that.”
After the 3-0 loss at Old Trafford, Mousa Dembele stated: “We don’t have to change anything at the moment because we are capable of beating the big teams.”
Based on the evidence of recent seasons, and Spurs’ record against the top teams on the road, is that welcome ambition or naivety and even arrogance?
Tottenham are indeed capable of beating the big teams. Indeed they have won at Old Trafford in two of the past three seasons.
However, United have grown in strength since then and spent a lot of money to become title contenders again. Given what happened in March, and the fact that Spurs are short of options in central midfield, Pochettino would be well advised to vary his tactical approach and focus on containment on Saturday – at least in the early stages to avoid early blows this time.
He is yet to show he is willing or able to do so with any regularity, so this is a good, early opportunity for Spurs to show they can frustrate their rivals as well as show off their attacking flair this season – to focus on having at least one point on the board on Saturday night.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs